Abortion and crime: who should you believe?

Two very vocal critics, Steve Sailer and John Lott, have been exerting a lot of energy lately trying to convince the world that the abortion reduces crime hypothesis is not correct. A number of readers have asked me to respond to these criticisms. First, let’s start by reviewing the basic facts that support the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis that legalized abortion in the 1970s explains a substantial part of the crime decline in the 1990s:

1) Five states legalized abortion three years before Roe v. Wade. Crime started falling three years earlier in these states, with property crime (done by younger people) falling before violent crime.

2) After abortion was legalized, the availability of abortions differed dramatically across states. In some states like North Dakota and in parts of the deep South, it was virtually impossible to get an abortion even after Roe v. Wade. If one compares states that had high abortion rates in the mid 1970s to states that had low abortion rates in the mid 1970s, you see the following patterns with crime. For the period from 1973-1988, the two sets of states (high abortion states and low abortion states) have nearly identical crime patterns. Note, that this is a period before the generations exposed to legalized abortion are old enough to do much crime. So this is exactly what the Donohue-Levitt theory predicts. But from the period 1985-1997, when the post Roe cohort is reaching peak crime ages, the high abortion states see a decline in crime of 30% relative to the low abortion states. Our original data ended in 1997. If one updated the study, the results would be similar.)

3) All of the decline in crime from 1985-1997 experienced by high abortion states relative to low abortion states is concentrated among the age groups born after Roe v. Wade. For people born before abortion legalization, there is no difference in the crime patterns for high abortion and low abortion states, just as the Donohue-Levitt theory predicts.

4) When we compare arrest rates of people born in the same state, just before and just after abortion legalization, we once again see the identical pattern of lower arrest rates for those born after legalization than before.

5) The evidence from Canada, Australia, and Romania also support the hypothesis that abortion reduces crime.

6) Studies have shown a reduction in infanticide, teen age drug use, and teen age childbearing consistent with the theory that abortion will reduce other social ills similar to crime.

These six points all support the hypothesis. There is one fact that, without more careful analysis, argues against the Donohue-Levitt story:

7) The homicide rate of young males (especially young Black males) temporarily skyrocketed in the late 1980s, especially in urban centers like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC, before returning to regular levels soon thereafter. These young males who were hitting their peak crime years were born right around the time abortion was legalized.

If you look at the serious criticisms that have been leveled against the Donohue-Levitt hypothesis, virtually all of them revolve around this spike in homicide by young men in the late 1980s-early 1990s. (There are also some non-serious criticisms, which I will address below.) This is the point that Sailer is making, and also the point made far more rigorously by Ted Joyce in an article published in the Journal of Human Resources.

So, a reasonable thing to ask yourself is: Was there anything else going on in the late 1980s that might be causing young Black males to be killing each other at alarming rates that might be swamping the impact of legalized abortion over a short time period? The obvious culprit you might think about is crack cocaine. Crack cocaine was hitting the inner cities at exactly this time, disproportionately affecting minorities, and the violence was heavily concentrated among young Black males such as the gang members we write about in Freakonomics. So to figure out whether this spike in young Black male homicides is evidence against legalized abortion reducing crime, or even evidence legalized abortion causes crime, one needs to control for the crack epidemic to find the answer. This is the argument that I have been making for years. First in the Slate exchange with Steve Sailer back in 1999, then in the Donohue and Levitt response to Ted Joyce, and now in a recent paper by Roland Fryer, Paul Heaton, me, and Kevin Murphy.

The key points I mentioned in Slate five years ago in debating Sailer are reprinted below:

Your hypothesis that crack, not abortion, is the story, provides a testable alternative to our explanation of the facts. You argue:

The arrival of crack led to large increases in crime rates between 1985 and the early ’90s, particularly for inner-city African-American youths. The fall of the crack epidemic left many of the bad apples of this cohort dead, imprisoned, or scared straight. Consequently, not only did crime fall back to its original pre-crack level, but actually dropped even further in a “overshoot” effect.
States that had high abortion rates in the ’70s were hit harder by the crack epidemic, thus any link between falling crime in the ’90s and abortion rates in the ’70s is spurious.

If either assumption 1 or 2 is true, then the crack epidemic can explain some of the rise and fall in crime in the ’80s and ’90s. In order for your crack hypothesis to undermine the “abortion reduces crime” theory, however, all three assumptions must hold true.

So, let’s look at the assumptions one by one and see how they fare.

1)Did the arrival of crack lead to rising youth crime? Yes. No argument from me here.

2) Did the decline in crack lead to a “boomerang” effect in which crime actually fell by more than it had risen with the arrival of crack? Unfortunately for your story, the empirical evidence overwhelmingly rejects this claim. Using specifications similar to those in our paper, we find that the states with the biggest increases in murder over the rising crack years (1985-91) did see murder rates fall faster between 1991 and 1997. But for every 10 percent that murder rose between 1985 and 1991, it fell by only 2.6 percent between 1991 and 1997. For your story to explain the decline in crime that we attribute to legalized abortion, this estimate would have to be about five times bigger. Moreover, for violent crime and property crime, increases in these crimes over the period 1985-91 are actually associated with increases in the period 1991-97 as well. In other words, for crimes other than murder, the impact of crack is not even in the right direction for your story.

3) Were high-abortion-rate states in the ’70s hit harder by the crack epidemic in the ’90s? Given the preceding paragraph, this is a moot point, because all three assumptions must be true to undermine the abortion story, but let’s look anyway. A reasonable proxy for how hard the crack epidemic hit a state is the rise in crime in that state over the period 1985-91. Your theory requires a large positive correlation between abortion rates in a state in the ’70s and the rise in crime in that state between 1985 and 1991. In fact the actual correlations, depending on the crime category, range between -.32 and +.09 Thus, the claim that high-abortion states are the same states that were hit hardest by crack is not true empirically. While some states with high abortion rates did have a lot of crack (e.g., New York and D.C.), Vermont, Kansas, Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Washington were among the 10 states with the highest abortion rates in the ’70s. These were not exactly the epicenters of the crack epidemic.

So, what is the final tally? Two of the key assumptions underlying your alternative hypothesis appear to be false: The retreat of crack has not led to an “overshoot” in crime, causing it to be lower than 1985, and even if it had, the states with high abortion rates in the ’70s do not appear to be affected particularly strongly by the crack epidemic. Moreover, when we re-run our analysis controlling for both changes in crime rates from 1985 to 1991 and the level of crime in 1991, the abortion variable comes in just as strongly as in our original analysis.

Re-reading this response five years later, it still sounds pretty good to me. Interestingly, at the time, Sailer refused to respond directly to my arguments. His response in Slate completely side-stepped the fact that I had destroyed his core argument. He wrote, for instance, “…rather than mud wrestle in numbers here, I’ll privately send you my technical suggestions. In this essay I’ll step back and explain why this straightforward insight [that abortion reduces crime] might not work in practice.” I should note that I am still waiting for those technical suggestions he promised to arrive!! And if you compare his Slate arguments to his “new” article in the American Conservative, you will see that his thinking has not progressed very far on the issue. In contrast, I spent two years working on that paper on crack cocaine, which provides hard, quantitative evidence in favor of those earlier conjectures I had made.

Now let’s talk about John Lott for a minute. Along with John Whitley, he wrote a paper on abortion and crime. It is so loaded with inaccurate claims, errors and statistical mistakes that I hate to even provide a link to it, but for the sake of completeness you can find it here. Virtually nothing in this paper is correct, and it is no coincidence that four years later it remains unpublished. In a letter to the editor at Wall Street Journal, Lott claims that our results are driven by the particular measure of abortions that we used in the first paper. I guess he never bothered to read our response to Joyce in which we show in Table 1 that the results are nearly identical when we use his preferred data source. It is understandable that he could make this argument five years ago, but why would he persist in making it in 2005 when it has been definitively shown to be false? (I’ll let you put on your Freakonomics-thinking-hat and figure out the answer to that last question.) As Lott and Whitley are by now well aware, the statistical results they get in that paper are an artifact of some bizarre choices they made and any reasonable treatment of the data returns our initial results. (Even Ted Joyce, our critic, acknowledges that the basic patterns in the data we report are there, which Lott and Whitley were trying to challenge.)

To anyone who actually made it this far, I applaud you for your patience. Let me simply end with an analogy. Let’s say that we are living in a world in which global warming is taking place, but also a world in which El Nino occasionally leads to radical, short run disruptions in normal weather patterns. You wouldn’t argue that global warming is false because for a year or two we had cold winters. You’d want to figure out what effect El Nino has on winter weather and then see whether controlling for El Nino it looks like global warming is taking place. The impact of legalized abortion on crime is a lot like global warming — it is slow and steady and grows a little year by year. Crack is like El Nino, it comes in with a fury and then largely disappears. That is why I have invested so much time and effort in understanding both abortion and crack, and why the criticisms made against the abortion-reduces-crime hypothesis to date have not been very compelling.


herb

I really enjoyed the erudition of your piece. Reactionary arguments have to be illogical. Reactionaries don't want to listen to anything or anybody because it would impugn impunity to bow before mere evidence. It is a mental disease, really. And apparently a contagious one that we will all die of regardless of whether we contract it or not.herb

Peter

Steve Sailer also has suggested that the lower-income women most likely to get abortions are the ones who have some degree of responsibility and ambition. The truly hopeless ones are less likely to get abortions; either they want a child despite lacking the resources to care for one, or they are too irresponsible to get themselves to abortion clinics. He posits that the down-and-out women in the latter category are the ones whose children are most likely to become criminals.Do you believe this is true, and if so how does it affect the abortion-cuts-crime theory?

Anonymous

This whole series of posts convinces me even more that, applied to social issues, statistics do not and can not "prove" anything. Like raw steel, statistical data can be ground and pounded into one's blade of choice, to do with as one wants, with more or less skill than the opponent who has access to the same raw steel. The great liberal triumph of the past half century has been to pull off the incredible sleight of hand that has turned statistical data into empirical "fact," and statisticians into social commentators. With a liberal press (by and large) hungry for anything that will sell media, the result has been a classic co-dependent relationship. Statisticians, in some unfortunate circles, have become like demigods. And, of course, in the liberal political world, statistics have become the ultimate weapon for liberal policy making.In the case of abortion, statistics do not prove anything, but rather just give the pols something to sharpen the edges of their social swords so they can appear to be correct, when in fact they just want to have the upper hand from a good statistical sound bite. The problem is, we all know too many statistical claims that have been taken as "fact" for decades, and have influenced social policy, even though later proved untrue. How? Simply because they were quoted and requoted. It's no coincidence we use the term "social engineering." Engineers use data however they think best to achieve a desired end in the most effective and efficient way possible. Statisticians can do the same, and we call them social engineers. No amount of statistical manipulation or interpretation can justify abortion. Whether or not you agree that it is morally wrong to kill a child in utero, it is unquestionably morally wrong to conclude that abortion is "good" or justifiable based on arguable statistical data and biased interpretations (like politicians, no statistician is unbiased). Statistics are certainly useful for marketing, insurance, surveys, and measurable testing, but not for social engineering. Leave that to people with moral convictions who will do what is right, not just what is statistically appealing. Moral strength does not need a flashy sword to prove its point. Lesser men (and women) rely on the glint of their statistical steel, rather than the steel of moral strength. Statistical swords can seriously harm too many innocent people once the steel starts flying. We all know the bloody swath in history that kind of thinking has left.

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Paul

Can the people who are preaching that abortion is wrong please borrow a copy of the book and spend 10 minutes reading the chapter? Levitt does not believe abortion is good or bad or right or wrong. He didn't start looking at how to make abortion more attractive by finding some hidden benefits. He was simply trying to explain why CRIME fell, and NOT some heretofor undiscovered benefit of abortion. Again, spend ten minutes and read the chapter before going on a diatribe about the morality of it, because it's clearly explained in the pages what the point of the research was.As for people who think statistics can be used to show anything, if you can show me how, I'd love to learn from you.

Steve Sailer

This is Steve Sailer:My overall view is that it is beyond the capabilities of contemporary social science to answer definitively the question of how abortion affected crime. Having looked at the data over the last six years, it appears to me that there is about as much evidence that legalizing abortion drove the violent crime rate up, especially in the 1987-1994 era when serious violence among 14-17 year olds hit an all time high, as that it drove the violent crime rate down. I'd like to address two crucial issues: exactly what is Dr. Levitt claiming and upon whom should rest the burden of proof.I addressed "ceteris paribus" (or "all else being equal") in my Slate.com debate in 1999 with Dr. Levitt. After noting that the murder rate went up apocalyptically among in late 1980s and early 1990s among the very group that had the most abortions in the 1970s: 14-17 year old blacks, I noted:"Admittedly, it's still theoretically possible that without abortion the black youth murder rate would have, say, sextupled instead of merely quintupling [from 1984 to 1993]." -- <a href="http://slate.msn.com/id/33569/entry/33571/http://slate.msn.com/id/33569/entry/33571/<br />Logically, this is what Dr. Levitt must be arguing over these last six years. But you can instantly see why he never makes clear his case. There's two problems: the first is that saying this instantly raises the question of why Levitt refuses to investigate the at least equally interesting question of whether legalizing abortion first drove crime up. As I wrote then:"Still, there's a more interesting question: Why did the places with the highest abortion rates in the '70s (e.g., NYC and Washington D.C.) tend to suffer the worst crack-driven youth crime waves in the early '90s?"As Dr. Levitt notes today: "The homicide rate of young males (especially young Black males) temporarily skyrocketed in the late 1980s, especially in urban centers like Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC." But, of course, abortion was legalized in Los Angeles and New York in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, and it was largely de facto legal in Washington D.C. from the same point. Funny, isn't it, how the crack wars got started exactly in those big cities where legal abortion got started?Obviously, in the sciences the longer the lag, the less truthworthy the assertion of causal correlation. Yet, Dr. Levitt seems to put more faith in longer lags. What we see from looking at the FBI statistics is that serious violent crime shot up among those most affected by legalized abortion: 14-17 year olds in early legalizing metropolises.Dr. Levitt, however, doesn't want us to think about that correlation. He long ago decided that we should only wonder about the hidden reasons why crime went down _later_. As for the hidden reasons why violent crime went up _earlier_ and earlier in some places than others, well, who needs to look in depth? All we need to know is Crack! The other reason why Dr. Levitt has not been forthcoming about what he is really saying is the obvious dubiousness of what Dr. Levitt is claiming: He is implying that: Although my theory fails its single best test case in catastrophic fashion, I can still separate out the very subtle breeze of the effects of legalizing abortion from the hurricane of other simultaneous events, such as the rise and fall of the crack wars, vast increases in imprisonment, the deaths by murder and AIDS of huge numbers of criminals, changes in police tactics, the decline in the abortion rate from 1992 onward, changes in the economy, increased sales of guns to law-abiding citizens, increased number of cops, the rise of rent-a-cops, the spread of alarms and video cameras, the rise of marijuana among the urban underclass, the spread of Depo-Provera contraceptive shots, etcetera etcetera...Well, good luck...And that brings us to the question of the burden of proof. Upon whom should it rest: Dr. Levitt or me? Dr. Levitt is a sympathetic figure, perhaps a heroic one, considering the difficulty of the analytical burden he has undertaken. I am a less appealing figure: the scoffer, the sniper, the naysayer. I do not offer a complete model of the causes of crime trends as Dr. Levitt claims to do. Nor do I feel competent to undertake one. I am merely poking holes in his big theory.Yet, it's a wise maxim in the sciences that large assertions require large evidence. Levitt's abortion-cut-crime theory is one of the bigger social science assertions of recent times. The weight of the evidence, however, falls far short of the weight of the importance of his claim. So, by all traditions of science, the burden of proof lies upon him, and he has failed to meet it.

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Steve Sailer

This is Steve Sailer:You can find much more analysis, graphs, and data on the abortion-crime hypothesis at http:/www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm

Steve Sailer

This is Steve Sailer:You can find my response to the first half of Dr. Levitt's posting at http :www.iSteve.com/abortion.htm

Anonymous

Would that all who put their faith in statistics could see how arcane and absurd this entire series of posts sounds to the average, and even intelligent, person (for the record, I have a post-graduate degree). There's no question in my mind that statistics is the systematic theology of secularism. Think about it. Systematic theologians (look up that term if you don't know what it means) all use the same source material, the Bible, but they all come up with wholly different ideas of how to approach and interpret that material, which leads to different views of what is "true." When preached, those views affect real lives and decisions. This whole discussion reminds me of some theological discussions. In the end, it's not the source material that makes the difference, but the presuppositions that you bring to interpreting that material. It's not so much about putting your faith in what you believe, but about believing what you have already put your faith in. Frankly, I have little faith in statistics applied to social issues. And if you really believe statistics is an "exact science" then your faith is misplaced. Get a real life!

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occidental tourist

While analogy is a powerful tool and Steven attempts to avoid importing disagreements in the arena of statistical combat over global warming into that of the social consequences of abortion by using a loosely ‘arguendo' technique, i.e. “Let's say that we are living in a world in which global warming is taking place”, he simultaneously invokes the ‘be careful what you wish for' proposition.

If we were to take these abortion arguments in the context of those over global warming, in line with this analogy, this would buttress the case of those who suggest that it we haven't a clue of all the variables involved and that trying to tease a clear result in favor of a predominate influence for one variable is almost inevitably the result of subconsciously favoring that argument (well, in the case of global warming it mayn't be subconscious).

In other words, lets forget about the varying strength of the sun, let's all but give up on reliable modeling of how cloud formation figures in this dynamic regimen, and when the results don't seem to support the original proposition don't go zero sum, look for a factor to back out and support the original conclusion about the cause. This starts to sound a lot more like judges looking for precedents that get them to a desired outcome in a case than a scientists reaching articulately defensible propositions.

The abortion reduces crime theory has far more intuitive plausibility (without regard to what one thinks of abortion) than a human signal in global warming. This is not to advance the notion that a human contribution to climate via CO2 emission is implausible or nonexistent, but to suggest that any rational consideration of the climate system puts global warming more in the realm of a ‘tipping point' theory than a solid statistical argument) and I think Steven thus does his arguments a disservice for the sake of a simple analogy.

Of course the idea of El Nino as representative of the ‘crack' epidemic is convenient, but in the world of global warming advocacy virtually all weather changes are blamed by the popular press reprinting environmentalist news release on the purported background trend rather than seriously advancing the idea of disaggregation. If you have a colder winter it's global warming, if you have a warmer winter it's global warming, if Florida gets hit by 4 hurricanes its global warming, some folks even pussyfooted around with how to blame the southeast Asian tsunami on global warming. Given that the very idea of Freakonomics is putting these analyses before popular, rather than scientific, readers there is a great risk in invoking this comparison.

I do appreciate the reasoned response to Sailer's essay and it is telling that there has been no comeback. However I think Tierney has the right idea in the article on your debate with Gladwell (unsurprisingly in my book as Tierney first burst onto my viewscreen with a radical – some would argue reactionary but, once the status quo goes over to the progressives, libertarian economists become the radicals -- debunking of the notion that recycling was necessarily a good idea). He seems to be saying that cooler heads should prevail. That there likely is not a stupendous narrative in the New York crime story but numerous factors that contributed to a new equilibrium.

It may be rhetorically convenient to focus on the squeegee men in the same way that politicians focus on some tiny constituency of the electorate that they think offers them the extra percentage point to win a close election while all but ignoring the base that got them to 49%. Nor should one necessarily disregard the possibility that the public perception of that waning squegee trend or other similar discouragements regarding who ‘owned' the streets could have significantly contributed to a co-dependent effect I intuit that more comfort with the streets means more people on the streets as pedestrians, as subway riders, etc. making them plausibly safer by creating more possible observors and intervenors relative to crime. Crime must retreat to the fringes where people are fewer and easier to pick off meaning it loses geographically as well as demographically.

But Tierney points to the ‘base' of these trends, more police -- perhaps more to the point a 100% increase in performance (25% to 50% of police actually policing). He only hints at the statistical basis for this claim but this could represent to crime what solar influence represents to global warming, i.e. the lion's share. Figuring this out is going to be difficult, but presumably there was some significant change in arrests or convictions per officer. Of course the question is does that mean more crime was going on or more criminals were being apprehended. My guess is that it is really going to be difficult to find good data sets that could compare the multiplicity of social factors that contributed. That does not negate the idea that a strong signal on the effect of legalized abortion deserves serious inquiry.

I haven't seen anything in this argumentation regarding whether one can fairly relate crime rates to the absolute number of criminals. My recollection is that the solving of crime is still relatively low although I can't quote any numbers (it is something that sticks in the back of mind like peanut butter on the tongue) so how do we know how many people were actually committing these crimes. How do we know that a diminished crime rate doesn't still represent more people committing a small number of crimes? In which case the fundamental notion that abortion reduced the number of likely criminals wouldn't wash. Can these statistics be translated reliably into comparative numbers of individuals? One supposes of the crimes that are ‘solved' you can try to extrapolate the number of murders per murderer or robberies per robber although that would only apply for the solved murders and robberies and not necessarily insure that we understood the number of other crimes that may or may not have been committed by convicted criminals.

Now I'm just dreaming up confounders. So it's time to throw it back to the blog. I do agree with Tierney's conclusion that the ideas that make you comfortable are the one's to watch out for. Of course that is a two-way street. The ‘abortion reduces crime' argument makes me comfortable. It seems not simply intuitively, but deductively, seductive, so I'm watching out for it.

Ciao,

Brian (not the same Brian – as Monty Python's troupe once said, “I'm Brian and so's me wife”)

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centuri0n

OK: I bought Freakonomics, and I read the whole thing, and, since I'm commenting on this post in particular, you can imagine that the chapter on abortion and the crime rate was the one that has left me somewhat agitated.Let me say this first: whether you "agree with" (which is to say, "have no objections to") the semi-eugenic conclusion that abortion leads to lower crime rates or you "disagree with" (which is to say, "have an agenda which makes the conclusion unthinkable", and I place myself in this second group), the argument reads like apocalyptic science fiction, and it has got to give you a sick feeling in your stomach. Does no one else really see the parallel between this theory/conclusion and Swift's "A Modest Proposal"?I wish I was able to make the case that this is an incidence of corollation and not causation, but when 80% of the abortions in the last 30 years were by single women, and more than 50% of all abortions were had by women under the age of 25, 2/3rds of all women having abortions say they cannot afford to have a child, and half say they do not want to raise a child as a single parent or in a troubled home, there's not much left to say. (those are the AGI stats)I wonder why the abortion rate hasn't also impacted the unemployment rate?

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Anonymous

"I wonder why the abortion rate hasn't also impacted the unemployment rate?"Why should it?

Steve Sailer

This is Steve Sailer:

Isn't it a logical inevitability that abortion reduces the crime rate? While the historical evidence raises strong doubts about this popular theory, many people assume it must be true on simple logical grounds. A reader writes:

"You began your "Pre-emptive Executions?" article by asking:

"Did legalizing abortion in the early 70s reduce crime in the late 90s by allowing "pre-emptive capital punishment" of potential troublemakers?

"Steve, the answer to the above question is obviously yes. If you abort a disproportionate number of the fetuses that would grow up to be criminals, you must reduce the crime rate. Of course there may be many other factors that effect the crime rate, as you point out, but these factors don't change the basic fact that elective abortion has reduced the crime rate. To argue otherwise is to make you come off as a doctrinaire conservative, rather than as a scientist."

This seems tautological, but keep in mind that in our country, educated people have a notorious history of misreading how not-so-educated people would react to changes in family structure incentives. For example, all the smart people in 1961 favored raising welfare payments to a few hundred dollars per month and giving it to unmarried mothers. Nobody they knew would have a baby out of wedlock just to get a welfare check.

Levitt assumes that legalizing abortion reduces the "unwantedness" of the babies who do get born. A close reading of Steven Levitt's book suggests that the reality, however, is not clear at all.

First, we certainly didn't see an increase in wantedness by the fathers of the unborn babies that managed to get born. Legalizing abortion reduced the moral pressure on impregnating boyfriends to marry their girlfriends.

The illegitimacy rate grew steadily from 1964 (which, counterintuitively, was the year The Pill was introduced, yet was also the inflection point in the great illegitimacy upswing), until it suddenly somewhat pleateaued in 1995, the year after the violence rate began dropping, and a few years after the abortion rate began dropping, perhaps not coincidentally.

Lots of people assume that illegitimacy and abortion must be inversely correlated, but the historical record in America shows that they are both high at the same time and low at the same time.

The simplest model appears to be that the Crack Era of the early 1990s was when a lot of the offshoots of the Liberal Ascendancy of 1964-1980 -- crime, illegitimacy, abortion, and venereal diseases such as AIDS -- were seen by many people as all coming home to roost, and a broad turn toward more traditional morality began in reaction to the horrors on the streets.

After the legalization of abortion, there was not a major drop in unwanted births as Levitt assumed when he concocted his theory, and he still implies even though he knows the facts are otherwise. Instead, there was a major rise in unwanted pregnancies. According to Levitt's own words, "Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent …" I know I reiterate this, but it's a stunning fact that you never hear in the abortion debate from either side, and it's a key to grasping what the impact of legalizing abortion was in reality, not theory.

Nor is it clear that this small decline in birthrate improved the quality of upbringing of the survivors.

Imagine a woman who started having unprotected sex because abortion was legalized. She gets pregnant, but then, for one reason or another, doesn't have an abortion.

Perhaps she hopes that having the baby will persuade the father to marry her. Perhaps when the father refuses to marry her she decides that if no man loves her, well, at least a baby would love her and cheer her up. Maybe all her girlfriends are having babies and it seems like the fashionable thing to do in her circle. Maybe it gets her out of having to go to high school and take a lot of boring classes she doesn't understand. Perhaps she finds she can get her own public housing project apartment and move out of her nagging mother's house if she becomes a mother herself, and then she can have sex with all the men she wants. Perhaps she keeps forgetting her appointment at the clinic because she's not too bright. Perhaps every time she gets the cash together for an abortion, she spends it on drugs first.

It's a statistical certainty that millions of babies were conceived because abortion was legalized but then were born for these kind of reasons. How many? I don't know.

But it's not at all impossible that legalizing abortion could have, on the whole, lowered the quality of parents and the upbringing they give their kids. In fact, it seems pretty likely that out of the tens of millions of women who had unwanted pregnancies due to legalizing abortion (tens of millions according to Levitt's own numbers), the ones who went ahead and had abortions tended to be the more ambitious, better organized women, while some of the ones didn't get around to having abortions were the more scatter-brained women.
This model fits what we all saw on the streets a lot better than Levitt's model. Urban black women had huge numbers of legal abortions from 1971 onward, far more than any other group. According to Levitt's logic, that should have improved the black male teenagers of the late 1980s through early 1990s.Yet, what evidence is there from, say, 1990 to 1994 that black males born in 1971-1979 were better behaved than the previous generation? The better behaved generation of black teens actually were the ones born in the early 1980s, yet the nonwhite abortion rate peaked back in 1977.

A reader writes:

Regarding the press's effusive response to Levitt's theory that legalized abortion has cut crime rates:

Many members of the educated classes probably believed this about abortion long before Levitt ever formalized the argument. His book has just made it more acceptable to talk about the subject openly. Poking holes in Levitt's argument does not change minds among the educated elite because his theory happens to fit so well with their view of the world.

For the educated, the process of having a child activates the same decision making skills as making a major career move. They can't even imagine doing it without considering timing, finances, impact on their professional lives, and a host of other factors.

They realize that accidents happen, of course -- and that's where abortion comes in. Abortion corrects family planning mistakes. It also allows the careless lower orders to catch up with themselves, the responsible users of birth control.

The educated assume that, with abortion available to eliminate errors, live births surely must represent children that are planned (or at least actively wanted by the time they're born). Given these assumptions, it just seems obvious to elites that abortion must be cutting crime by reducing the number of babies in the "unwanted" category.

Maybe the chattering classes would find it less obvious if they could see the issue from evolution's point of view -- one in which planning and wantedness have nothing to do with reproduction.

As far as nature is concerned, producing offspring is the default position. It's just what living things do. Beating nature at her own game takes intelligence, foresight, and planning -- all of which tend to be in short supply at the bottom rungs of society and among the low IQ population.

Every means of avoiding baby production -- abstinence, contraception, abortion --requires some level of self control, active decision-making, or competence. By contrast, producing a baby requires nothing more than having sex and waiting.

Thus, it is almost inevitable that many babies will be born to women who are among the most impulsive, the least capable, and the least intelligent. How could it be otherwise? No need to even consider the issue of wantedness. It's just evolution win
ning again.

Inopportune pregnancy obviously has been around for a long time. During the 15th through 19th centuries, many European countries apparently dealt with the resulting babies by dumping them into foundling homes, where the vast majority died from disease and malnutrition. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discusses this in horrifying detail in her book *Mother Nature,* where she estimates that millions of babies were abandoned throughout Europe. Some foundling homes even installed revolving barrels so that parents could drop off infants anonymously.

My guess is that the foundling home system, brutal as it was, probably was much more efficient than modern day abortion at culling the crime-prone and otherwise "least likely to succeed" babies.

In past centuries, women who failed to acquire adequate economic resources through marriage or work would also have failed to keep their offspring alive. Without welfare available, unwed or poor mothers would have had little choice but to give their infants up to the foundling home, and to likely death. Thus, most women who successfully raised children would have been at least minimally competent in a social and economic context.

By contrast, today's "abortion + welfare" system virtually ensures that many of the most incompetent and least intelligent women will give birth and raise their children to adulthood. The likely result is an increase in crime, not a decrease.

Many of those discussing Levitt's argument coyly refer to it as "controversial," while clearly thinking it's a bit of a giggle. I wonder if they would find it so amusing to see what a really effective "preemptive execution" system looked like.

Let me try to model this with numbers. The model that Levitt wants you to assume, even though he knows it's not true, is something like the following:

- Assume before the legalization of abortions that there are 100 conceptions and thus (ignoring miscarriages) 100 births.

- Assume that abortion is legalized and the 25 "most unwanted" pregnancies are aborted.

- Assume that "most unwanted" is roughly synonymous with "least promising."

- So, now only the 75 most promising fetuses are born and the 25 least promising never grow up to mug you. As J. Stalin liked to say while signing death warrants, "No man, no problem."

Now, it's easy to see the lack of realism is these assumptions. The assumption that the 25 who get aborted will be the 25 least promising is grossly over-optimistic. For example, women are seldom making decisions on abortion not based on where their unborn children would come out relative to the other 99 but on other, more personal grounds. There might be a certain tendency in that direction, but it's going to be attenuated.

But, that's just the surface of what's wrong with this model. It's actually radically fallacious because it doesn't account for the vast increase in unwanted pregnancies, which is ethically sleazy of Levitt, because he knows all about what actually occurred.

Here's what really happened, according to Levitt's own statement in Freakonomics: "Conceptions rose by nearly 30 percent, but births actually fell by 6 percent …"
Thus, what happened looked more like this.

- After legalization, there were now 129 conceptions, not 100, and 35 abortions, leaving 94 births instead of 100.

- But who were those 94 births? This is where it gets terribly murky.

--- Some of those births will be of the 29 who wouldn't have been conceived without legalization. Women got pregnant assuming, consciously or unconsciously, that they'd have an abortion, then didn't get one for any of a host of reason. Will these kids turn out better or worse than the ones who are getting aborted? Who knows?

The 94 births could have turned out more promising, less promising, or the same. Nobody knows, including Dr. Levitt.

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Hatcher

I have long been familiar with the abortion = less violent crime down the line argument, which is an interesting idea and all, but who really cares? Can such an argument be used as a justification for abortion? "Down the line, we're gonna have to give 'em the electric chair anyway, so we might as well stick a pair of scissors into the back of the head of a partially delivered baby and save at least the life he would otherwise take (assuming of course its a he)." Even NARAL would shudder to make that argument, you would think.

Anonymous

who really cares?There are good reasons to care that have absolutely nothing to do with how one feels about abortion. As the book points out, the drop in crime has been attributed to lots of causes - more police, software, "broken windows," etc. Wouldn't it be nice to know if any of those things matter? If we want to reduce crime shouldn't we try to find out what strategies actually do that, as opposed to what just sounds good. This is not to argue that abortion should be legal because it lowers crime. It is to argue that, if legal abortion is in fact the cause of the crime drop, then some of these other ideas are overrated, and we should look elsewhere for crime prevention strategies.

Stan Tsirulnikov

It may be that statistics is not an exact science and that it cannot answer the truly important questions in life. Nevertheless, I am sure that some of those posters who claim that statistics can be made to say anything use prescription drugs, drugs that were proven "safe" using ...oh, I don't know, magic? Did Merck kill a cow and poke around in the innards when it ran all those tests? Of course, there are bad stats and there are good stats. The problem is figuring out which is which. Maybe some things really cannot be measured, but it is hard to know if we do not try. Regarding the abortion-lowers-crime idea, people should really just read the book (or the original paper, which is on Levitt's website and is free) and see for themselves that Levitt is not advocating eugenics or killing poor or minority babies or anything like that. He is simply trying to find a relationship between the fall in crime and abortion. After all, it may be that totalitarian dictatoships are correlated with low rates of rape. That does not mean that such a system of government is desirable,only that such a relationship exists. PS Joel Best has a pair of fun and easy to read books about the use and abuse of statistics in social debates. The are on Amazon.PSS I am not Joel Best, so I get no money for mentioning his books.

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Anonymous

Right on, leslie

Shauna

What makes you think I am sitting on my ass? I was a foster parent for years to abused children. I am a child advocate in many ways, I am the vice president of one PTA, and the incoming president another. The PTA is a wonderful organization that was actually formed to advocate for children. We came into existence to take children out of forced labor in sweatshops in the beginning of the 20th century, and to also provide them with lunches in schools. PTA is also responsible for this countries' program of child immunization. I and my family volunteer many hours per month working on just the issues we are writing about here. I write letters, attend local school board meetings and city hall meetings attempting to get more funds for education locally, and for social services reform. I and my family volunteer in the community with church and secular organizations on a regular basis. Each person cannot save the whole world, but they can try to make their own little piece of it better.Now just what are you doing, besides whining on this blog? Have you taken a moment to get involved in any of these peoples' lives, or is your answer to just extinguish the lives of kids who come from poor families. Maybe if you idealists out there took a minute out of your busy schedules to stop shaking your collective fingers at others and "each one reach one" this world would actually become a better place. It takes actual human contact to have an effect on people. And yes, I am actualy doing that, not just sitting on my ass. You picked the wrong person to make an assumption about. Further, I myself had a pretty poor life growing up. That being said, I wouldn't take too kindly to any of you being in charge of making the decision that I would have been better off not being born because I was going to have a rotten life. That is not for you to decide. We are not all promised health and prosperity. We are only given life. No one promises any of us that we will get a fair shake. Would you who think that poor abused kids would be better off aborted then choose to abort all kids from Calcutta, Port Au Prince, Haiti, and Sri Lanka, I think not! Why should you abort American kids because they will in your opinion have a poor life. Think about it. And yes, abortion is a crime against at least one person, if not society as a whole.Shauna www.furthernotice.blogspot.com

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Shauna

Forgot to mention that I know many other people who don't believe abortion is the answer who are also working on the problem as well. I am not alone. There is an old saying: 2 wrongs don't make a right. Don't combat the evil of poverty and ignorance with the evil of abortion. It only devalues people. Education, strong families and birth control yes, abortion, no.

Vince S

I am no fan of abortion. I come from a very conservative family. However, it stands to reason here in Chicago where low income women have abortions that if you grow up in the projects, you get pregnant and decide to raise your child, there's a better than average chance that the child will not only be exposed to a lot of criminal behavior but possibly take part in it as an adolescent or young adult. The chances are that in those cases abortion reduces crime. Are we to assume that every unborn child that was aborted and that was from the projects would have grown up to be a wonderful, gainfully employed adult???

Shauna

"Are we to assume that every unborn child that was aborted and that was from the projects would have grown up to be a wonderful, gainfully employed adult???"First, There is not enough evidence to prove that abortion reduces the crime rate. Second, of course not! You can't even assume that kids from suburbia will do that. Are you trying to to say that no one's life who comes from poverty will be one of value? Someone above made the point that the people who have abortions are those who have the gumption, money and resources to have them, not the poorest of the poor, anyway. Shauna www.furthernotice.blogspot.com